The Emergence of Modernism

It is difficult, when considering the Modern architecture in Victoria, BC, not to draw parallels with that in Vancouver. These two important West Coast cities only have about sixty kilometers between them. It was not until ferry service from Swartz Bay to Tsawassen was introduced in 1960, however, that the commute between these two centres did not consume an entire day. Meanwhile, in the first couple of decades after the Second World War, each city experienced a building boom. Nonetheless, the travel time between Vancouver and Victoria made the growth of each city seem independent of the other. Therefore, like the development of the urban identity with its collective attitudes and aspirations, the enthusiasm for, and the development of Modernism in each city has been distinct.In retrospect, the Modern Movement in Victoria from 1945 to 1975 was a period indicative of contrasting ideas about how the urban landscape should be. While many of the citizens of Victoria cherished and identified with its picturesque architecture grandfathered by such architects as John Wright (1830 1915), Francis Mawson Rattenbury (1867 1937) and Samuel Maclure (1860 1929), others were determined to rejuvenate and modernize the placid image of the city. This was a period of transition, when the convictions and ambitions of these two groups of politians and citizens were both confronted and compromised into a contemporary urbanism. Today, the effects of this period, which were once extreme and extraordinary, have come to define Victoria as an influential modern city with a strong persuasion for traditionalism.

Victoria's economic stagnation was not kind to architects of the '30s and '40s. The net result was a retrenchment to direct international influences in architectural design; in the case of Victoria a blatant affair with undiluted British taste not only in the revival styles but matched by the marching modernism of the International Style which was encroaching on the city with equal vigour. In the meantime local building traditions began to fade, new commercial construction favoured more pedestrian versions of the current international styles. The Art Deco style, itself symbolic of the new alliance between art and technology, was introduced along with local branches of the major international corporations. Both "Art Deco" and "Moderne" were terms applied to the manner of building popularized at the 1925 Paris exhibition, L'Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The Kresge Department Store (1930, archt. G.A. McElroy of Windsor) and Imperial Oil Automobile Service Station (1931, archts. Townley and Matheson of Vancouver-both Victoria-born but Pennsylvania University-trained) were symbols of this new era which also saw Victoria briefly enjoy the reputation of "Hollywood North." (British film content laws prompted several film studios to use Victoria as a location for a number of "B" movies.) There were, however, very competent local practitioners who adopted the style: Johnson and Spurgin produced the Gibsons shop on View Street (1931); Eric C. Clarkson designed the Coronet Theatre (1936); and in 1938 Patrick Birley designed the much-lauded Sussex Hotel, the facade of which has now been incorporated into Paul Merrick's Sussex Place for Princeton Developments (1995). James and James' Main Post Office on Government Street (1948-52) was a late Art Deco variant, hovering between Classicism and International Modernism, and a far cry from their English and American vernacularism when they worked in the shadow of Rattenbury and Maclure. Wartime saw Art Deco give way to Moderne, often with a strident enthusiasm. Architect W.J. Seymen had pioneered the spare lines, white streamlined surfaces and rhythmic massing of Moderne in the Tweedsmuir Mansions over looking Beacon Hill Park in 1936. Scarce and substandard building materials during the war years may have further popularized the stucco finished look among the local contractors. The Gordon Head Campus Communications Building (1941/2) which survives at the University of Victoria is a small but sophisticated essay in the idiom. Patrick Birley's Athlone Apartments (1940), and as Birley, Wade & Stockdill the Salvation Army Building (1946/7), as well as a series of houses designed by S.N. Hill for the A.H.F. Stelck family 1214, 1218, 1221 Old Esquimalt Road (1941-5), are of very high calibre. However these additions to the townscape with their smooth lines, surfaces and sparse flat ornamentation typify a period which experienced massive inroads into the local economy and popular culture by foreign interests While some of these structures are significant monuments in their respective idioms, and were hailed "progressive" in their day, they are still foreign and estranged from the traditional residential character of Victoria which even to this time maintains a love affair with the Picturesque. Abstract Expressionism in domestic building came of age in the 1950s when a new group of enthusiastic practitioners including Vancouver's Arthur Erickson, Doug Shadbolt and Barry Downes, and Victoria's John Di Castri, Peter Cotton, John Wade, and Alan Hodgson brought indigenous design back to the Northwest. Influences were both British and American, particularly via California and the newly formed UBC School of architecture. The result was later to be called the West Coast Style. Historian and critic Chris Gower has written on the role of "centennialism" in ushering in to Victoria the Progressive architectural movement. Certainly the economic boom and heady nationalism that accompanied various celebrations of the magic jingoism associated with 100 years since something (1858 Crown Colony of British Columbia established; 1866, colonial union of British Columbia and Vancouver Island; 1871 British Columbia enters Canadian Confederation) provided some opportunity for monument building. Victoria marked 1958 with construction of Beacon Hill "Mile Zero" monument designed by Rod Clack. A pivotal figure was Victoria Mayor Richard Biggerstaff Wilson. It was Wilson who kick started urban renewal of Victoria's downtown with the city's own Centennial Square Project in 1963. It was also Wilson who spearheaded the campaign to relocate the University of Victoria to Gordon Head in 1959 and who sought out one of America's foremost planning firms to oversee the development of the garden campus. And just as the University Campus was to grow within the tensions of a bifurcated aesthetic, the heroic grey Brutalism of Abstract Expressionist architecture blurring into the green folds of its sylvan setting, so "Old Town" Victoria set off in search of a compromise blend of romantic historicism (paint-up and preservation) with international modernity (shopping centres, highrises and freeways). The seminal document of Wilson mayoralty, Over All Plan for Victoria (1965), established the terms and language of the debate which would carry forward some 30 years. So the monuments and personalities of this period were to dominate Victoria for a generation: city planner Rod Clack, architects Nicholas Bawlf, Peter Cotton, Clive Campbell and Alan Hodgson (variously at work restoring Bastion Square, conserving Old Town, and reconstructing burned-out Government House) and the powerhouse firms: Birley, Wade, Stockdill; R.W. Siddall Associates; Wagg & Hambleton; John Di Castri-inserting parkades and institutional monuments into the downtown core or the green fields of suburbanite Saanich (which itself was building a Corbusier- inspired Municipal Hall and defining its urban containment boundaries at this time). And it is interesting that these same themes continue to play out their roles in Post-Modern Victoria of the 1990s, particularly in the crucible of comprehensive development: Songhese-high density urban renewal on the edge of Old Town Victoria; the later parts of Broadmead-Romantic Eclectic Revivalism in the Royal Oak subdivision which pushes the edge of Saanich's containment envelope; Selkirk Waters-environmental reclamation for live-work mixed use; and outright defensive historicism in the traditional neighbourhoods of Oak Bay, Fairfield, Esquimalt and High Quadra. And variously suited to these causes the opportunities have given rise to a new breed of designers. John Keay and Bas Smith specialize in social housing as sensitive infill. de Hoog, D'Ambrosio Rowe postulate a restrained High-Tech to mark urban edge developments. Eric Barker and Doug Campbell playfully re-introduce the Classical vocabulary to soften institutional monumentalism with varying degrees of success. These are all themes that can be traced in the rich history of urban design in Victoria.